In a modern sense, our societal definition of what constitutes art has evolved to be more and more inclusive. However, our ethical values concerning murder and perverse sexual fantasies have not become so generous. Depicting the sadistic fantasies that four libertines enact on 18 young teenagers, Pier Pasolini’s Salò is a film that pushes widespread ethical boundaries. But does the ethically reprehensible content of the film mean that it does not possess aesthetic value? Ethicism is an attitude of assessment that attempts to answer such a question by using ethics as one of many criteria for determining the aesthetic value of a work of art. While Pasolini’s intention was to provoke the disgust of Salò’s audience, his removed, uncritical attitude towards the atrocities present in the film renders it flawed by the standards of ethicism. However, for those who can move past the film’s offensive content, one may find aesthetic value in Pasolini’s social criticism and juxtaposition of beauty and evil.
Ethicism succeeds in attributing some aesthetic value to Salò because the film elicits Pasolini’s intended response. According to Berys Gaut’s “Ethical Criticism of Art,” “What is really relevant for ethicism are the attitudes really possessed by a work, not those it merely claims to possess” (Gaut 184).1 If the attitudes “really possessed by the work” elicit the artist’s intended response of the viewer, then the work is considered more aesthetically admirable. On first impression, Salò may seem to be a disgusting, sadistic horror film without any artistic purpose or intention. Yet even after discovering artistic value and/or social commentary by delving deeper into the film, it remains horrifying to watch the captives be creepily fondled and raped, made to eat feces, and eventually skinned and burned alive. But this is exactly the response Pasolini desired, and therefore Gaut’s merited response argument works towards the aesthetic success of Salò.
However, Salò’s real aesthetic value lies in Pasolini’s social criticism resulting from the audience’s merited response. While artistic intentions are often difficult to ascertain, one may find it helpful to know that Pasolini was a self-proclaimed Marxist,2 and accordingly, disapproved of modern capitalism. Thus, as a social critique of capitalist consumerism, he created a film that provokes so much horror and disgust that it is difficult to consume. Though it seems nonsensical for a filmmaker to make a film that repels its audience, if we can move past the film’s extremism, Pasolini makes us question our consumption choices. This idea is present in the symbolism of the film’s “Circle of Shit” segment, which metaphorically represents society as engaging in the activity of the libertines and their captives: eating feces. Through the response from Salò’s ethically reprehensible content, Pasolini demonstrates that society is so used to consuming cookie-cutter cinema that we are completely overwhelmed by a film that requires analytical engagement to give it value.
Despite succeeding in terms of the merited response argument, Salò as a whole fails to satisfy the principles of ethicism because it does not blatantly criticize unethical behavior. Pasolini is not necessarily sympathetic to the torturers—they never seem to be fully satisfied, escalating their sadistic fantasies from sex to torture, and eventually to murder. Their socially unacceptable desires may even be seen as a burden. However, Pasolini unexpectedly does not focus on the suffering of the abused captives. With the exception of the objectifying shots of their genitals, we see very few close-up shots of the captives, whereas the camera spends a lengthy amount of time familiarizing the audience with the faces of the libertines and their accomplices. Meanwhile, though there is very little interaction between the captives, the majority of the film’s dialogue consists of the libertines speaking to each other and Senora Vaccari (one of their accomplices). Additionally, we catch a glimpse into the captives’ living quarters only twice, whereas an entire scene takes place in the dimly lit men’s lounge room, where the libertines discuss their latest desires and conquests over cocktails. Despite such intimacy with the libertines, we do not see the condemnation ethicism would call for. In terms of ethicism’s pro-tanto principle—“such that, if a work manifests ethically reprehensible attitudes, it is to that extent aesthetically defective, and if a work manifests ethically commendable attitudes, it is to that extent aesthetically meritorious” (Gaut 182)—Salò’s distance from the atrocities presents an unacceptable ethical attitude that undermines the aesthetic judgment of the film, outweighing its aesthetic success in light of the merited response argument. And while the ethically reprehensible actions of the libertines may be seen as working towards a broader aesthetic value such as “cognitive insight” (Gaut 183), the film does not suggest that Pasolini disapproves of their behavior. As demonstrated by his social critique of consumerism (and later, his juxtaposition of beauty and evil), Pasolini seeks to criticize us, the film’s viewers, not the libertines. The lack of disapproval towards the obscene atrocities depicted qualifies Salò as an aesthetic failure in terms of ethicism.
Salò may fail in terms of ethicism’s standards, but the presence of such irreconcilable ethics provides a contrast with beauty that is essential to the film’s artistic vision—making its audience realize its attraction to evil. Atrocities of rape, torture, and murder take place in a secluded castle that possesses a cold, sparse beauty. A room in which libertines relate vulgar sex narratives displays stunning symmetry. Such crude narratives of kinky sexual escapades are told by the soothing voice of glamorously clad Senora Vaccari. Throughout the movie, beautiful ceremonies take place, such as the wedding of two captives, only to end in rape. The film begins with an introduction of classical music and a seemingly quiet, normal town that is quickly ravished by four libertines. And during the most horrible atrocities, we do not hear the screams of the victims, but the same lilting classical soundtrack. Presenting such offensive actions in such a pleasing way is not only a riveting film technique, but also serves to make the film more bearable by creating a degree of separation between the viewer and the pain of the victims. As consumers of modern sensational cinema, we are used to watching movies with content similar to that of Salò—sex, violence, drama—which create emotional attachment and empathy to the characters through use of perspective, camera shots, and music. Pasolini does the opposite. By using beauty to create distance from the victims emotionally, visually, and aurally, the viewer becomes a helpless onlooker who has no choice but to submit to the only viewpoint that Pasolini provides: that of the torturers. Through this lens we gain some understanding of the libertines’ unconventional and socially unacceptable desires, and may even become aroused by some of them. Empathizing and being attracted to the perverse fantasies of sadistic torturers is an incredibly uncomfortable position to be in, enough to foster a denial of what Pasolini would call our innate attraction to the immoral, sinful, and evil.
That innate discomfort is why Salò is a film of aesthetic value. Though the film fails in terms of ethicism despite eliciting its intended response, there is aesthetic value in Salò’s social criticism of consumption. However, that is only one aspect of the larger, more controversial claim that Pasolini makes about human nature. Salò’s true aesthetic value lies in viewers’ struggle with the cognitive dissonance Pasolini creates: feeling intrigued by and attracted to cruelty and suffering presented in such a beautiful way. Though we do not necessarily have to accept or act upon such an attraction, as a society we have largely determined that its presence itself is shameful. Salò’s widespread rejection and censorship is exemplary of that repression. Appreciating the film may garner disapproval among your peers, and disapproving of it may demonstrate your denial. Hate it or love it, as you confront your reaction to the film, your own morals are necessarily implicated. So, are you a sadist?